Several Democratic senators introduced a measure Tuesday that would reverse new Trump administration policies that have the effect of separating children from their parents when they try to cross the U.S. border illegally.
The effort, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would prohibit border patrol agents and all other officers from removing a child from his or her parent or legal guardian anywhere within 100 miles of the U.S. border, except for a few narrow exceptions dealing with court orders and suspicions of child trafficking.
The bill is a response to a Department of Homeland Security policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 8, under which all illegal immigrants, including asylum-seekers, face prosecution. The new policy also led to adults being detained separately from their children. The difference between the new policy and the one in place under President Barack Obama is that, once the adults had their initial hearing, they would be reunited with their children, released into the U.S. and given a notice requiring them to appear for a future court date.
The Trump administration has said that policy, which officials derisively call “Catch and Release,” leads to many people simply disappearing into the United States.
Last week, Sessions said that the administration could “work at” having facilities where parents remain united with their children but this legislation would hasten those efforts by prohibiting them from doing otherwise.
There are already three ICE family residential centers, which, as of last week, were holding 2,607 people.
“This child-snatching has to end, and it has to end immediately. It is a dark scar on the heart of this administration and on the heart of our nation,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a cosponsor of the bill who visited a processing center at the border over Memorial Day Weekend, said during a press conference Tuesday announcing the bill.
Merkley also announced he would be introducing a separate act that would require border officials to grant members of Congress access to detention centers if they requested it. During his trip, Merkley also attempted to access such a facility, overseen by the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement and administered by a nonprofit organization. Administration officials said he had not given the facility enough time to prepare for a visit, having contacted them only two days before he tried to enter.
At the Tuesday event on Capitol Hill, the Democratic senators also decried a separate DOJ policy shift that Sessions announced Monday that would essentially remove domestic violence and gang violence as allowable reasons for asylum in the United States.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., noted that this policy would disproportionately affect women, who represent the majority of domestic abuse victims, and minors, who are frequently brought to the U.S. with their parents to flee gang violence in their home countries.
“This is all supposedly in the name of border security but in fact what we have is a government that is ripping families apart instead of keeping them together,” Harris said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the asylum policy shift a betrayal of American values.
“People will suffer brutality and the blood will be on Jeff Sessions’ hands,” he said.